Myth, religion, and fascism

Yuval Noah Harari is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The basic thesis of the book is:

The truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities. Of course not all fictions are shared by all humans, but at least one has become universal in our world, and this is money. Dollar bills have absolutely no value except in our collective imagination, but everybody believes in the dollar bill…

Humanity’s greatest invention is religion, which does not mean necessarily mean belief in gods. Rather, religion is any system of norms and values that is founded on a belief in superhuman laws. Some religions, such as Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, believe that these superhuman laws were created by the gods. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Communism and Nazism believed that these superhuman laws are natural laws. Thus Buddhists believe in the natural laws of karma, Nazis argued that their ideology reflected the laws of natural selection, and Communists believe that they follow the natural laws of economics.

No matter whether they believe in divine laws or in natural laws, all religions have exactly the same function: to give stability to human institutions. Without some kind of religion, it is simply impossible to maintain social order. During the modern era religions that believe in divine laws went into eclipse. But religions that believe in natural laws became ever more powerful. In the future, they are likely to become more powerful yet. Silicon Valley, for example, is today a hot-house of new techno-religions, which promise us paradise on earth with the help of new technologies. From a religious perspective, Silicon Valley is the most interesting place in the world.

…History is a very unexpected process. Time and again the most unlikely events take place. For example, in the third and fourth centuries AD an esoteric Jewish sect took over the mighty Roman Empire. In the seventh century a religion born in a remote corner of the Arabian Desert managed to establish the largest empire in the world. In 1917 the Communist Party, boasting a mere 23,000 members, gained control of the mighty Russian Empire, which had 180 million subjects. There were no deterministic reasons mandating the Christian, Muslim or Communist victories.

In a new book about fascism by philosopher Jason Stanley, he argues that fascism is unique in its ability to create fictions that unify fascists in belief:

The two ideals of liberal democracy are liberty and equality. If your belief system is shot through with lies, you’re not free. Nobody thinks of the citizens of North Korea as free, because their actions are controlled by lies.

Truth is required to act freely. Freedom requires knowledge, and in order to act freely in the world, you need to know what the world is and know what you’re doing. You only know what you’re doing if you have access to the truth. So freedom requires truth, and so to smash freedom you must smash truth….

Part of what fascist politics does is get people to disassociate from reality. You get them to sign on to this fantasy version of reality, usually a nationalist narrative about the decline of the country and the need for a strong leader to return it to greatness, and from then on their anchor isn’t the world around them — it’s the leader…

The thing is, people willingly adopt the mythical past. Fascists are always telling a story about a glorious past that’s been lost, and they tap into this nostalgia. So when you fight back against fascism, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back, because the truth is messy and complex and the mythical story is always clear and compelling and entertaining. It’s hard to undercut that with facts.

I think both men have valid points. Harari thinks that all social activities (government, business, sport, etc.) are built upon narrative religion/myths that orient everyone to a common goal because of beliefs in certain laws. Stanley thinks that fascism is uniquely founded upon these sorts of myths. But some laws really are natural laws of science! And some myths make most people better off, like the almost universally shared delusion that money is intrinsically valuable. That is a really useful myth. Most of the world would starve without it. What is different about fascist myths is their divisiveness, tribalism, and authoritarianism, not necessarily their unreality.

I mean, Hitler’s Germany recovered from the Great Depression almost immediately due to having better macroeconomic “myths” than the other western nations. They probably just got lucky that their economic policies were better, but certainly not all of their ideas were based on lies and delusion.

Rather than define fascism as a kind of rhetorical style of propaganda, I’d define it as a kind of authoritarian economic system which I would call plutocratic socialism. It is the unity of big corporate power with big government. I’d argue that China and Russia now have fascist economic systems even though their rhetorical style is quite different from that of traditional fascist movements.  Business people who amass power (wealth) that is independent of the dictatorship are punished and so big business and government work together for the same political ends.  For example, large companies in Russia “typically have a member of the intelligence services, either active or retired, working at a senior level. If a company’s services are required in some way [by the secret police], the officer—called a kurator—coördinates them.”

During wartime, capitalism naturally turns towards fascist economics and both Japan and the US were pretty fascist during WWII. Fortunately the US didn’t go as far down that road as Germany and we didn’t adopt the fascists’ racial ideas. But war does have a way of making people more tribalistic. On the one hand, it helped unofficially integrate African Americans and whites in the military.  (There wasn’t an official order to integrate the troops until four years after the war in 1948, but it came about largely due to the experience of the races working together during the war). On the other hand, the war led to demonization of German speakers and Japanese Americans were actually rounded up and put into internment camps in the desert. That is pretty fascist in style.

Now that communism is dead, fascism is once again the greatest geopolitical and ideological threat to capitalist democracies.  Indeed, the two countries that were the biggest powers of communism, China & Russia, have both converted to fascism since 1990. If these two huge neighbors hadn’t hated each other so much over the past century, their power to export communism would have been truly formidable.  If they unite in the future, they could still have even more influence to export fascism.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics, Public Finance

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